How Barnsley Council is building its own IT services and sharing them ‘for the greater good’

Written by Richard Kingston on 14 May 2020 in Features
Features

The authority’s IT manager Richard Kingston explains why local government needs to collaborate for the benefit of citizens

Barnsley Town Hall is located in the town centre    Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

For many public sector bodies, bringing services back in-house has increasingly become a practical way to cut costs and improve quality. 

At Barnsley Council, we’ve developed our own income management system and have started to see the benefits of using it – such as significant efficiencies in processing income – and of talking about it.

When a council does decide to ‘go it alone’, innovating and building their own IT solutions, I believe that there are some questions they should always be asking themselves. Could this help someone else? How can you successfully scale a local solution? How can you utilise the cloud to do this?

With budgets tight, it’s hard to look beyond the immediate commercial benefits of developing your own IT solutions. But the truth is that this pales in comparison to the real difference you can make by sharing it with others. 

As we make our way to the tail-end of a discovery project at Barnsley to see what is possible with sharing our platform across the country, I want to make the case for true council collaboration with self-created solutions.


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I have worked at Barnsley for 20 years, and in that time the IT department has not collaborated much outside of the council until now. Initiatives like the Local Digital Declaration – which Barnsley co-signed – encourage councils to commit to sharing best practice. However, without solid legislation in place to incentivise that, councils that do take action must break down the boundaries themselves and start talking.
 
We hold a vision to share our self-created solution with other councils. To us, it’s simply the right thing to do.
 
Embracing this collaborative view has been a game-changer for us. Since the development of our homegrown IMS, other councils have told us that we, as a fellow public sector body, are more trusted to build a fitting solution for them given our first-hand experience of the problem being solved. The alternative, as we all know, is a private sector provider with shareholders and an outsider’s view of the situation.
 
The cornerstone view here is that councils will find it easier to trust other councils when it comes to acquiring new digital solutions. After all, if it’s clear that the aim is to collaborate and share rather than boost profit, then a foundation of trust can be formed much more quickly. Signing up to the Local Digital Declaration or acquiring money from the Local Digital Fund is great, but councils need to put those signatures into action and work together.
  
Developing products in a commercial sense works well for cloud service providers, where the interest is in improving public services and making a significant profit in the process. It can be tempting to a council with its own in-house solution to want to take the same approach. But they should be hesitant in following in their footsteps. Our focus must not be on making a profit; we are collectively responsible for the wellbeing of citizens and providing services that meet their needs.
 
To get the most out of these homegrown services they should be viewed as a shared platform for local councils. In the absence of large profits and in the face of a commitment to improving public services, what other perspective could we have? 
 
Since going live two years ago, Barnsley’s IMS has meant the support team has received very few support calls – it works. In the public sector, where battling with outdated systems is a frustrating daily reality for many, this is great news. If we’re really committed as we say, a shared platform approach is a no-brainer. 

Sharing best practice doesn’t mean simply offering advice. It means sharing your solutions too.
 
Ambitions for more
At Barnsley, we have already completed the discovery part of the process. We are soon moving onto an alpha then beta, with the hopes that we can begin to share our IMS with other councils. We’ve been working with dxw to do this, as one team with a common goal. They have a wealth of other public sector clients and a track record of helping other organisations do the same thing. I know we are putting ourselves in the right hands. 

To get the most out of these homegrown services they should be viewed as a shared platform for local councils. In the absence of large profits and in the face of a commitment to improving public services, what other perspective could we have?

Do I think collaboration will become more frequent between local councils? Yes. 

While we have GDS pulling central government departments together, there is so much potential for the same thing to happen within local government. 

Projects like this could be the catalyst that councils need. It should change our way of thinking from treating everything in terms of money – whether saving or spending – to thinking in terms of shared platforms. At Barnsley we are learning to develop, yes, but also not to be too inward-looking. Don’t just look at your own requirements as a council – consider sharing any self-developed solution for the greater good. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole public sector shifted to this mindset?
 
Working together, we can aim much higher than operating in the siloes many of us are used to. If we can break down boundaries, talk to each other and share, then we will enable many more future local services to benefit from the solutions that we create. 


 

 

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About the author

Richard Kingston is IT manager at Barnsley Council

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